🔒 Robin Renwick, Britain’s “undiplomatic diplomat”, defending Rupert, laying bare the Zuma kleptocracy

It’s perhaps no surprise that Lord Robin Renwick works out of offices in Mayfair that are directly opposite the house where “The Lady With The Lamp” lived and died. Because like the famous Florence Nightingale, this most undiplomatic diplomat uses a lamp of his own, his books, to expose areas of darkness. In his ninth book, How To Steal A Country, Renwick lets the facts speak for themselves, and then skilfully follows the advice of his friend Pravin Gordhan to ‘join the dots.’ It’s a well written easily flowing record of the young democracy’s darkest hour and how it managed to escape a very gloomy future. And with a manuscript vetted by Gordhan himself, this is about as close to the ugly truth of the Zuma Kleprocracy as we’re likely to get. I spent an hour with Lord Renwick last week. This edition of Rational Perspective provides the highlights of that fascinating conversation. – Alec Hogg 

Today we take a deep dive into the Zuma-Kleptocracy and what comes next for SA by tapping into the considerable experience of an 81-year old undiplomatic diplomat. He’s just written his ninth book. It’s called – ‘How to Steal a Country.’ No prizes for guessing its topic. Although he had a 4-year spell as Britain’s Ambassador to the United States (USA) and that would be the UK’s top, foreign posting. It was his time in Southern Africa that stirred the passion, which still burns brightly. Let’s meet him.

My name is Robin Renwick. I was the Ambassador in SA in the period leading up to and following the release of Nelson Mandela. Since then I have worked for 20-years also on helping to attract investment to SA. I wrote this book because I was worried about the way things were going and to celebrate a truly remarkable turnaround.

This is Robin Renwick’s sixth book dealing with SA.

This one started because things were looking very dark for SA 6-months ago. You had the ‘Zupta’ Regime in full-flow, resistance to it but they were ploughing on regardless. There was a very real risk that in the election in December, which was won by Cyril Ramaphosa with 90 votes out of 9 000. There was a very real risk that could go the other way, in which case I didn’t believe that you could continue with that degree of corruption, State Capture, and the rest without finally destroying the Constitution. I think it was touch-and-go, and the plans of those in charge at the time, were in due course to muzzle the press and the Judiciary, and to install the kleptocracy, permanent kleptocracy you’ve had in Zimbabwe or in Angola. So, this was a case of SA being pulled back from the brink and in the end it’s a good story because the combination of an extraordinary press, courageous and very effective, brave judges, independent judges, and a very dynamic civil society helped to pull the country back from the brink.

And you dedicate your book to those three, plus Pravin Gordhan and to Madonsela.

Well, one of the pleasures of writing this book is that Pravin helped vet the chapters on State Capture, after he was ousted as Finance Minister for opposing State Capture and before he was called back to deal with State Capture. It’s also brought me into contact with Thuli Madonsela.

Did he make many changes?

He made some changes, yes, usually for the worst I’m afraid, in the sense that saying that it was even worse than I thought and Thuli Madonsela is, who I find an extraordinary person. Her father was a small trader in Soweto. Her mother was a domestic servant. She gets a scholarship to the Evelyn Baring School. She works on the Constitution. She the becomes the Public Protector, and she showed enormous courage in doing what she did. She was threatened, she was denounced as a CIA spy and goodness knows what. She produced these reports, which not only are courageous but forensically absolutely deadly. I was worried about what was happening to my favourite after my own, and I thought that if the Zuptas had won.

Sipho Pityana made a speech in which he said, ‘If this election goes the wrong way then State Capture is going to be entrenched here, and we have to consider what then to do.’ By which he meant, ‘do we break away from the ANC, which I think he and a few others would have done. Now, you were left with a situation then that you would have continued with the full force of the Zupta Regime, and the opposition wasn’t a wide enough force to be a totally effect break on it because the DA hasn’t got a nationwide constituency yet, by any means. Even if the ANC had got down to 45% in the election you would have had to try to deal with the EFF and that wasn’t exactly going to be supportive of the Constitution, in my opinion. And any temporary deal between the EFF and the DA, at the national level, would have broken down because they have completely different philosophies.

So, this was SA deserves periodic strikes of good fortune, like Mandela or de Klerk. Wimpie de Klerk, his brother, told me this is a terrible way for de Klerk to go. He said, ‘he’s far too conservative.’ I said to him, you’re his real brother and you know him better than I do but I think he will do surprising things. You had got a stroke of really good fortune in December. It was touch and go and the reason Cyril was able to win, (this is in the last two chapters of the book), was because the Zuma camp didn’t believe he would win. They believed they’d set it up, and they were wrong, but it was touch and go.

It’s only a year ago Pravin Gordhan was booted out of the Cabinet, where the Zumas were in full cry, and when you explained what was going on to people here, in London. Did you get the reaction that I got, which was they listened for a while and then stopped believing you because it appeared all too far-fetched?

Well, some of them found it hard to believe the extent and audacity of this kind of corruption but was happening was an investment strike. People were just fed-up with SA. They really didn’t want to know about it any longer and certainly not as a destination for the investments. That was really serious because that does starve you of the potential to grow the economy, and that’s why I started writing it. I spent years for working for SA companies, raising money for SA for the expansion of their operations. I spent years with the Flemings’ and JP Morgan raising, on average, helping to raise R1bn a year for investment in or around SA. That dried up almost completely.

Is it back?

Well, it can come back.

Is it coming back?

It does depend on how much is done to adjust the Mining Charter. The difficulty of getting licenses has been horrendous and people haven’t given nearly enough emphasis to job creation, and each one of these jobs in mining – if you create 10 000 jobs in mining that sustains 60 or 70 000 people, all the ancillary services and the families. The multiplier effect is huge but if you do the opposite the multiplier effect is equally huge, and mining has been shrinking. There’s a chapter in here called, ‘How to Win the Mining Industry.’ It’s been shrinking because of repeated scandals and bad policy choices. Now, that can be reversed. Let’s see what comes out of the revisions of the Mining Charter.

How would you sum up your views on the future, if you were to two use words – cautiously optimistic?

Yes, and that’s exactly of what I’m accused of being, cautiously optimistic. I’m not expecting miracles because a friend of mine, Alec Russell, wrote a book 15 to 20 years ago called ‘After Mandela’ in which he said, ‘that liberation movements don’t generally age very well.’ They start off with these wonderful people who are prepared to go to jail or sacrifice their lives. They then win power. They fill up with [inaudible 0:09:04.5] whose absolutely universal concern is holding onto power and enriching themselves. This has happened in much of the rest of SA. Is that process reversible? Well, we’ll see. With Cyril, to some degree, we’ll see. It’s not going to be easy for him because within the ANC and the Provinces this has become a way of life.

Okay, so there’s no underestimating the extent of the challenge but can SA’s progressive new President drain his country’s huge corruption swamp, ‘Is Rama-phoria, ’which has seen the Rand gain 20% since we knew that Ramaphosa might get elected. Is it made of fantasy or reality? Is it even possible for Cyril Ramaphosa to live up to the elevated expectations of a Nation?

I’ve known Cyril for 30-plus years, since the apartheid days, when he was the firebrand leader of the NUM. I’ve had many dealings with him. I’ve never seen him do anything dishonourable and certainly not steal anything or cheat, or lie, or whatever. So, to have that kind of decency at the top, (reinstated at the top) and also, his commitment. He wrote the Constitution. The real dividing line in SA politics isn’t between the DA and the ANC. It’s right down the middle of the ANC. Between those who want to change the Constitution in numerous ways, and those who don’t.

As you might expect, part of our conversation also focussed on the numerous villains of the peace. Starting with one of peace. Starting with one of my own adversaries, the now defunct public relations consultancy, Bell Pottinger, which was once the biggest of its kind in London.

The first person who got stuck into Bell Pottinger was Johann Rupert. When they started supporting the Guptas I was on the board of Richemont – we fired them straight away. We old them they were dealing with completely disreputable people and they should stop I straight away.

Who, at Bell Pottinger, did you say that to, Lord Bell?

Well, we told Tim Bell but he was leaving and he was leaving, in part, because of this. Under him, there was a CEO called Henderson who took no notice whatsoever, and a woman called Victoria Geoghegan, whose account this was and their behaviour was an utter disgrace because they were creating fake news on a massive scale, by the way. Deluges of emails, anti-Pravin, anti-Rupert, and anti-anybody who was anti-Zuma, and that went on for months with them being absolutely totally shameless about it so, in the end it cost them their company – the company went under.

But other multinational companies got sucked in too, including KPMG, whose auditing of the Guptas was a disgrace. McKinsey got sucked in and the reason was that the Guptas had established such a close relationship with ‘Number One’ that you couldn’t get any business contracts with Eskom, or Transnet, or Denel without going through a Gupta-company. This was State Capture on a massive scale.

Are they contrite or sufficiently contrite, KPMG and McKinsey?

Of course, initially, KPMG were very much not contrite. They went on to brazen it out – this was the local manager, in the end they all got fired and KPMG are not suitably contrite. McKinsey also, started off by saying, “We don’t see that we’ve done anything wrong.” Now, you’ll find, the head of McKinsey, not agreeing with the locals that they didn’t do anything wrong. These were the local representatives saying, ‘if we don’t do this we won’t get the work.’ Mc Kinsey booked R1bn fees for little more than 6-months work contracted with the help of the Guptas. This story, far from being over, it’s only just begun. Hardly anyone has been charged – $15bn has been stolen from the SA State. Hardly anyone has been charged here. No one has been convicted, and it’s no use thinking that the lesson will be learnt unless some people go to jail.

Robin, you serve on a number of boards of big companies, Richemont you mentioned earlier, SABMiller, you did serve on British Airways board, I remember Harmony where you stepped-off because of the conflict of interest, BHP Billiton. From that business background how difficult was it to do business in SA during the Zuma era?

Well, it became almost virtually impossible. In mining a combination of being steered towards dodgy empowerment partners and so on and the absolutely crazy elements of the Zwane Mining Charter. I go to the Mining Indaba every year and the last three Mining Indabas I can only think of one investor, actually in phosphate, who invested in SA in this period. The rest of us were in CT for the weather, despite the fact that there wasn’t any water, and we were discussing investing everywhere except SA. So, investment in the mining industry came to a complete halt.

You’ve mentioned Johann Rupert a couple of times. You do serve on the Richemont board so, you know him pretty well.


He has had in name or his reputation badly tarnished by the Guptas and their Bell Pottinger operations, etc. is he able to come from that?

He wasn’t tarnished by them. Years ago, Helen Suzman and I were declared, ‘Enemies of State,’ in Zimbabwe because we had criticized Mugabe. Now, she actually put it on her CV. She said, ‘Dame of the British Empire, ‘Enemy of the State.’ To be attacked by the Guptas, Black Land First etc. That’s not tarnishing. That’s a badge of honour actually, and I was attacked by them too so, fine, we’re in this together. Johann Rupert was against apartheid, I was there at the time when he was being threatened by Magnus Malan, and he was against Zuma, and he said so publicly. When he said, publicly that Zuma should stand down he didn’t get any significant business support. Later the business community were all starting to say, ‘we’ve had enough of this – he must stand down.’ So, he’s got some credentials, some credit in this affair, as far as I’m concerned.

Why do you think business didn’t support him?

Because business was frightened about the effects on their businesses, and when you ask many of my black SA business leader friends why they didn’t criticise the government, they would say, ‘well, we’d never get any government related contracts again.’ I’ve heard that from an entire ANC Royal Family telling me that – I won’t give you the name of the Royal Family, they have all sorts of business interests and still has.

The three Z’s, if you like. You mention Helen Zille a few times in your book, in glowing terms, Helen Suzman. What’s your view of Zille and particularly the Tweet that got her to fall out of favour. The fact that she said, “Well, not all colonialism is right.”

Well, for a start, I’m not in favour of Tweeting. If you’re in a serious government position, whether Trump or whoever it is – I’m not in favour of Tweeting. However, what she said was actually factually accurate, and I thought the fuss that was made about it a lot of it based on Bell Pottinger bots and so on, was ludicrous actually. If you read her book she went into the Cape Townships at a time when the DA had no support or whatever. The police and the government were on the side of the ANC obviously. She showed great courage in helping to build-up DA support in the Cape. She took the DA from whatever it was, 9% of the vote, to a quarter of the votes or thereabouts, and she has run the Western Cape far better than any of the other Provinces. So, I think all that should be recognised actually, and not forgotten. Now, a colonialism Tweet annoyed a lot of people but I don’t regard that as a capital crime myself.

The other ‘Z’, Zuma and the Zuptas, they are the focus of your book as the anti-heroes. The heroes being Pravin Gordhan and Thuli Madonsela, as you said earlier. What do you think is going to happen to the Zupta – the whole network of influence?

The Guptas have a big problem because they are now being investigated by the Indian tax authorities so, they can’t, very easily, set foot in India any more. They’re being investigated very slowly by the National Prosecuting Authority still in the hands, amazingly, of Mr Abrahams but they are under serious threat over the Estina Farm scam so, they can’t really service in SA anymore. The US Justice Department are taking a keen interest in them too. So, at the moment they’re held up in Dubai and they’ve made off with huge sums. I can prove that $1.5bn went into Gupta-related entities in the last 4-years. So, they’re not suffering any hardship. Duduzane Zuma presumably, is hanging out with them. Now, a lot of people have, it wasn’t only the Guptas, several hundred people were involved in these scams. Many of them directors of the SOEs, others executives in those enterprises, and others in politics too. So, it’s very important. This is a question ‘a luta continua.’ It’s very important that these investigations are followed up properly so that some people suffer consequences. A lot of them have lost their jobs but if you’re the CFO of Eskom, and you sign-off on hundreds of dodgy contracts with the Guptas, it shouldn’t only be your job that you lose.

The other ‘Z’, Zapiro, many of his cartoons are in your book. He’s a national treasure.

Well, I was hoping you would mention him because the real reason for buying this book is the cartoons. The rest come free but the cartoons are fantastic, and I think he is the world’s best cartoonist. I don’t know any other cartoonist figure around the world who has the accuracy the sort of modern humour of Jonathan Zapiro. When I wrote to him to say, ‘look, I’m writing this book, will you lend me your cartoons?’ Absolutely, because saw it as fighting for the same cause, which was against State Capture, but nobody has been more effective than him. He’s portrayed the unfortunate Zuma ever since his rape trial with a shower over his head. His description taking over the sea, the pirates of Polokwane, that’s one of his truly great cartoons, but in here there are a lot more, great cartoons. My personal favourite is the one that comes from Monty Python, you’ll remember when the two knights are fighting – one loses a leg, it is but a scratch. Here it shows Thuli decapitating Zuma and Zuma is saying, ‘It’s only a flesh wound.” Well, it wasn’t a flesh wound. The State Capture Report by Thuli helped to trigger a lot of civil society response. I’ve never seen such effective civil society organisations. They got numerous villains dismissed from senior places in the Government. Lots of cases over-turned on appeal, the Cape Environmentalist managed to block the nuclear program. It’s an amazing story.

Yes, or Paul O’Sullivan, who managed to get two Commissioners of Police fired, which much be unprecedented.


Why is it, do you think, that civil society in SA, this armada of NGOs rose up and somehow was as effective as it was?

I think it was partly the UDF background all over again. People did this under apartheid so, there was a history of doing this. Secondly, you just have a lot of extremely talented and motivated people. The Justice Under Law group under Johann Kriegler has an absolutely first class legal minds. The DA get criticized for this, that, and the other but they were very effective in overturning Government decisions through the Court and in challenging the Government in many ways. Maimane said, of the Guptas, that they were sordid people exploiting a vulnerable country. They were a symptom of the problem. The problem is deeper than that, and where Cyril is going to have his work cut out – I mean, Cyril and Pravin Gordhan, between them, will be able to clean up a lot of corruption at the centre and in the SOEs. But when you read a book like ‘Crispian Olver, ‘How to Steal a City,’ or Sizwe Yende’s account of, ‘What Goes on in Mpumalanga.’ The corruption in the Provinces is structural and stamping that out is going to be a very, much harder task.

So, how do you see SA, going forward?

Well, I see it much, more cheerfully than I did if the vote had gone the other way. I the vote had gone the other way in December, Eskom would have gone bust, it would have been in default, and they only survived with Cyril, and changes to the board because the PIC lent them some pension money, which is not really, they were supposed to do. To have brought a company, of the size and importance of Eskom to its knees shows you what the sheer scale and audacity of these people and at the beginning I say, that Sherlock Holmes old nemesis, Professor Moriarty, and a pillion of crime would have been really impressed by what these guys did and got away with.

Did you ever meet the Guptas?

No, I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting the Guptas and I doubt if I will now but in case I was going to be sued by them, I got this book vetted by a leading lawyer in SA, Dario Milo.

And what did Dario have to say about this book?

Dario thought that since most of it’s based on fact, there shouldn’t be a problem.

So, getting back to that – whereto for SA now?

With Cyril you will get a recovery in confidence, for sure and a feeling that there is an honest person at the top. But some of the expectations attached to Cyril – he will find it very difficult to meet. He’s still saddled with two very compromised Ministers in his Cabinet. He’s saddled with 2 or 3 members of the top-6, who are very questionable indeed. I don’t think Mr Magashule is much of a new-age ANC, Cyril supporter. So, he’s not entirely master in his own house and he’ll have to manage that. But will things be much better? Yes, and what’s very important is, I say at the end, that history isn’t just made by historical forces. It’s made by individuals too, for the better, in the cases of de Klerk and Mandela, for the worse, very much worse, in those of Mugabe and Zuma. So, over to you Cyril, a friend from apartheid days, and we served together for many years with SA Breweries. We’re all hoping that he will give what is, we all believe, a wonderful country a more, hopeful future, and I think he will give SA a more hopeful future.

So, hope springs deep in the breast of this reflected man, who calls SA his favourite country, apart from his own. I was surprised by a few things in Robin Renwick’s book. Mostly his forthright approach, which holds nothing back. Most unusual for a man who spent most of his career in the diplomatic corps. He let’s the facts simply speak for themselves, and then the skilful way in which Renwick follows his friend, Pravin Gordhan’s advice and ‘joins the dots.’ It’s a well written easily flowing record of the young democracies darkest hour and how it managed to escape a very gloomy future.